Shy Radicals: An interview with Hamja Ahsan

Shy Radicals book cover

“To some extent all our political motivations and morality are based on imaginary states”

Hamja Ahsan, author of Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, discusses humour, connecting diverse movements and struggles, and imaginary spaces in activism.

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Read the transcript:

Lani: Welcome to Sideways Times, a UK-based podcast in which we talk about the politics of disability and disability justice. Throughout this podcast I hope to have many conversations which deepen and broaden as well as challenge our understanding of how to work against ableism and how this connects to other struggles.

I am Lani Parker and in this edition I talk to Hamja Ahsan about his book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert. We discussed what influenced the book, the use of humour in the book and in art in general, and how the themes relate to issues of racism and ableism, as well as some more things. I hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think.

Lani: Hi Hamja, thank you for coming to meet me. To start with could you tell me a bit about Shy Radicals and how it came about?

Hamja: So Shy Radicals has something I feel has always existed in me as a form of coping with feeling excluded and demeaned and bullied I guess, through what I call extrovert supremacist culture. It became a book last year, published by Bookworks – it’s an artist’s writing publisher. They’ve published people like Lubaina Himid, Liam Gillick and Jeremy Deller and then they’re like one of the best I think experimental publishers. And there’s a series called Common Objectives which is edited by an activist called Nina Power, who you might know through organisations like Defend the Right to Protest, or the Alfie Meadows campaign, and feminist philosophy. And she selected this as part of the series. So the way I’ve conceptualised my own feelings of inferiority and being bullied through being someone who is going to be the more awkward shy or quiet person in the room and thinking in a way of… not seeing it as something to be corrected but a different mode of being. I guess the questions which are often around the term neurodiversity and the way many people with Asperger’s Syndrome or autistic spectrum, and forms of resisting mental health diagnosis and medical models of mental disability, and reclaiming them as different ways of being. So I made up a revolutionary political party which would be like the Black Panthers but for shy people.
Lani: And you were saying – from that you were saying, you know, you’ve made it up, it’s a figment of your imagination. There’s a lot of humour in the book. But I wondered about to what extent is it a joke and to what extent is it a commentary on the politics of today and kind of…

Hamja: I mean every single word I wrote in the book of course.
Hamja: I think there’s this layer of – I don’t actually know what I actually mean and what I don’t and that’s where the strength of the book lies, in that. So it takes the militant posturing of black radicalism and also Islamic jihad and separatist feminism and all this quite erm sour faced, very hardened militancy. And I just say it like it is. And I don’t know where the humour starts, where it begins. I’ve never had – you know, I’ve been touring this book around the UK – everywhere I go the commentary afterwards will always be as if it was a very serious piece of societal analysis. And they’ll be like – oh does it relate to Judith Butler’s notion of body capital, is it really about gender, how can it help us fight the state, what kind of activist groups do you identify who behave in this way. So I think, yeah, it’s the bleak erm.. thing. I also get a lot of – like you could only call it fan mail. And it’s from people around the world and they’re like: I’ve felt this way my entire life, I’ve always felt this inferiority and – I think there’s patterns of like the way people are in groups or… often in activist groups, in places of employment where they feel very belittled, and I feel like there’s no recognition of much of the belittlement at the level of the law or the state. But it’s also based on having quite painful – so it’s firstly the experience of secondary school bullying, which is very central to that, so a lot of the politics relies on the tropes of teen movies. And the way – I mean I’m late 30s now – they don’t leave you these sort of tropes, no matter how late you get into adult life. So, you know, I attempted suicide at 17 and I view that as a culmination of secondary school experience. And the whole history of male suicide and its failure to be recognised as a major public crisis right now – just it’s astronomical, like tens of thousands of people, of men who commit suicide. And it’s not improving. So they’re things that are actually quite serious and painful. But yeah at the same time, this sort of ironic distancing, this weaving of like what’s – because a lot of the book has things which are real historical events or fact and weaving it with an imagined political party. But I think to some extent all our political motivations and morality are based on imaginary states. So, for example, many people who campaign for Palestine in the UK have never been there. And yet what happens in Palestine can motivate how they might behave here. Or I don’t know say people smoking weed and being OK with that is legitimised by how they imagine Jamaica is like or how they imagine Amsterdam is like. So I found imaginary spaces just do actually create very real forms of legitimising serious concerns.

Lani: That made me think about the role of imaginary spaces in activism or in thinking about what we want to see in the world. And I know that you’re quite involved with DIY cultures and other things and I wondered – do you – are you trying to … or how do you see the role of imagination in those spaces?

Hamja: I think that a lot of it was – so I’m more well known for a campaign for my brother who was detained without trial or charge. And the war on terror, and a lot of this period of time he was in group isolation or solitary confinement. And this is – so he’s living in a sort of regime which is very bare life. So you’re 24 hours a day, or 23 hours a day, in a concrete box, you know the size of your bathroom, with no human contact apart from strip searches. So he used to write poetry in prison and also imagine states, so there’s this very profound prose poem he wrote called Otherstani and it’s imagining a state which was like beyond nationalism and patriotism and where there’s no wall. And one beautiful line was he said the national anthem was a minute’s silence, in this poem. And then I think that had a profound influence on my life and the book, and prison writing generally. And not just the genre of prison writing but from that space of solitary confinement where your world is so bare, thinking of the imaginary communities people used to make.
One artwork is by an artist called Jackie Sumell who worked with a Black Panther prisoner called Herman Wallace and he’s a Black Panther who’s been in solitary confinement for over 40 years, part of the Angola three. And he imagined a house, like an ideal house or mansion, he’d like to live in after his solitary confinement. And those spaces of like imagining. There’s also an art project called – I think it’s called letters to solitary or pictures from solitary, but people in solitary confinement telling people on the outside the images they’d like to see, like a bright blue sky, and then that keeping them alive. I sort of think as a diasporic subject in that – like my parents are from Bangladesh, they imagine it’s a particular type of place, and I imagine it’s a particular type of place and experience it through how my cousins present it. Like – it would mean like your parents have always imagined say Bangladesh is an area which is like more – I don’t know like children are more moral towards their parents and they’ll use it to castigate them. I think also in terms of Islamic politics, like there’s people imagining the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate and the period when the nation state wasn’t such a divisive entity or some sort of grandiose project like that. They’re all things that have sort of – they’re like imaginary spaces in many ways – imaginary pasts and erm.. yeah they all go into like – they provide people with a lot of strength.
Like a person – like a Muslim growing up in Britain he might feel disenfranchised, he feels like the press always belittles and demeans them every day, that the whole employment structure does that. He imagines this more glorious period where we were more – they were – I mean I don’t know my own religious identity, at the centre of world affairs or had some degree of global power, or were central in scientific discovery. And that provides them a sense of esteem. I think, you know, the contemporary example of this is like Wakanda and like in the Black Panther film. And obviously that would be an imaginary space but showing a space where like you know black women could be scientists and of technological advance. And just for diasporic subjects a place when – like people imagine Bangladesh might be places like famine victims and goats, and imagining and knowing what else it can be is quite powerful in some sense of self-esteem I guess.

Lani: So we – in the book you have, there’s a state called Aspergistan, that’s the sort of political goal. And you use a lot of stuff from – well it seems to be implemented by socialist patients’ collective a lot, and also kind of has a lot of disability politics in it, weaved through it. And I wondered what would you like to say about that in terms of how it connects to disability politics?

Hamja: The socialist patients’ collective book Use Illness as a Weapon – that was probably the big influence on the book in terms of the style and format of it. And again I read – because it’s from the 60s, I read anything set in the 60s as a certain level of sort of caricature and fantasy. And I … this term they use – the doctor class, that’s what becomes the extrovert class in the thing, but the sort of – I think not thinking of like medicine in this benevolent frame. I mean when I was at an earlier age I read a lot of RD Laing and antipsychiatry stuff, and Foucault and then during the course of the book I read Ivan Illich who wrote a book called Medical Nemesis which I still think is the most revolutionary and amazing question on the whole edifice of medicine, and whether it’s good for you. Yeah the state of Aspergistan, you know I just feel like – I realised it’s something that already existed in terms of like you can google it and a lot of peer-led autistic forums already talk about the state of Aspergistan prior to me even coining it within the book. I think I read a lot of autistic literature as part of the book and there’s a particular book on autism and depression where one of the writers speaks about being autistic and being like a second-class citizen, so taking that very literally and thinking in what ways I can create a better type of citizenship. I think all these institutions like, you know, like a lot of the book is written in legal language and I think I think about the welfare state and charity models and NGOs and – yeah ways of… I think, you know, you have the model of the charity and the NGO which is always paternalistic and you can think like – I mean I – there were lots of things I imbibed. Maybe some of it was also African independence literature so there’s a book – a big influence on me was the curator Okwui Enwezor, who wrote a book called The Short Century which is an anthology of African liberation movements. And the film The Battle of Algiers is mentioned and Algeria and Libya and what they would have been. But they were states which resisted the whole – I guess [Thomas Scacara 15:44] as well in – also I saw the play recently. You know, they were states which in and of itself resisted those models of like development and patronage, and they saw the patronage as a form of control and of maintaining the power hierarchy. And I guess that’s how they get imbibed into… one of my best moments in terms of touring the book was when I was with an artist called Dolly Sen and she wrote this book called the DSM 69 which is a parody of the diagnostic manual, and it’s a very punk rock book, it’s like a fanzine. And she has this charity campaign called Help the Normals, and she has like this charity box you can donate and help normals. And she makes fun out of the celebrity culture around disability and – as if you were like – you know there’s something else you get as a shy person which is like you can get hostility and contempt but you can also get this sort of aww you little puppy or kitten or whatever, and rejecting those politics as well. Yeah.

Lani: Yeah I wondered a few things I suppose about the framework of the state and like, you’ve said like it’s all a joke – all a parody, so in a way like I don’t want to take it too seriously, but I wondered about this framework of a state because obviously the state system that we have … well not maybe obviously but in my thinking the state system we have at the moment currently is an oppressive system that upholds white supremacy. So – how, in terms of a political demand for the book, how did you come to that decision and – was that saying something about the idea of the state and citizenship or was it…

Hamja: I think dealing with lawyers – and radical lawyers, my brother’s lawyer was someone called Gareth Peirce who’s a very iconic lawyer, she dealt with the Guildford 4, she’s played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father and I think she’s dealing with the Hillsborough cases now. And when I did my brother’s campaign I drew allyship and solidarity with other people’s experiences of state violence. So I understand what you mean by the oppressive state. But at the same time I view law and legislation as a culmination of struggles. So whether that’s the race – you know, acts relating to race relations but also – so the Hillsborough campaign and the lawyers they want a law called the Hillsborough law which will look at a duty of candour within the state that the state has to provide an obligation of admitting its fallity, so they don’t close ranks. And that has very wide application. But passing the law was seen – I think reading Helena Kennedy’s work – what’s the book she wrote recently – she’s written, I can’t remember the title of the book but the introduction says the best way of looking at an autobiography of a nation is to look at its laws and the laws that it’s passed. And in some ways law is more representative of historical struggle than if I went to national portrait gallery and saw these heads of states and stuff. So I mean I do recognise the law and the state as like forms of power rather than what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong. I think it was just the act, I mention it in the book, of like wandering around South London on a Friday night and not having anywhere to just sit and be quiet. And imagining – say if the state could protect that at a statutory level, I thought wouldn’t that be great, and it’s like what else would protect it apart from the state, I don’t know. We have these things in that like, you know I think both of us – I don’t know if you – I mean I don’t know – but like you know we want to protect legal aid and we want to protect aspects of the welfare state. When I was at the national portrait gallery – briefly I worked in visitor services but one of the best parts of the job was we got to speak about any portrait we want as like sort of a guest lecture. And I said talk about Clement Attlee. Clement Attlee’s a very significant figure for me in that he’s a figure who’s – you know he introduced the most revolutionary changes of a – that a Westminster democracy can do in terms of the whole modern welfare state infrastructure, the NHS, just after World War 2. And also turning the empire into the commonwealth – I mean for all its flaws And but he’s creating a type of state and type of citizenship that’s protective. And a lot of the arguments against the NHS and the welfare state, from Churchill at the time, was that Churchill said in the election campaign introducing the NHS was like introducing a Gestapo and like the whole argument was about liberty and the state being too invasive. And erm.. you see in retrospect how ridiculous it is. I mean it got to the extent that the British medical association said by putting doctors in the NHS you’re making them like West Indian slaves, and that’s this exact quote. And – yeah I don’t know it’s sort of – I also have some sympathy with like anarchist thinking in terms of like it’s also a very, you know, as someone involved in DIY cultures which the whole purpose of that is about looking at non-state ways of being and erm things outside mass administrative structures. Erm.. yeah. So it’s something I don’t I think…on the other hand, the whole book, the whole constitution of the state of Aspergistan is mostly based on North Korea as well so [laughs]. Erm.. yeah I guess it’s something I’m unresolved in that I think like I know like we want good public services and libraries and erm.. yeah. On the other hand we want a – we don’t want things to be too bureaucratic erm.. yeah I don’t know. I can’t .. yeah I feel like I can’t provide a conclusive statement on it. I feel like it’s always – we’re always in this state of like fighting. So at the moment I feel like the Conservative government are at war with us, like they’re at war with the welfare state, they’re trying to take away human rights protections, and we’re just trying to keep that. In some ways keeping the status quo isn’t enough, like I don’t think the human rights act is protective enough. And also another aspect of my book is just about what the state doesn’t recognise and what the law doesn’t recognise. So I think it also applies to disability but erm.. there was a case of Sophie Lancaster who’s a goth, and she was like murdered about 10 years ago, and the whole purpose of – one of the main purposes of her family-run campaign is that existing forms of hate crime legislation, which may be around race, class and gender or – and I don’t know if they do, but doesn’t recognise goth subculture as a form of hate crime. So if you just take that one thing, there’s so many other things like which are of equivalence which isn’t recognised by legislation, and how would you do that. And I think reading – writing the book, the first chapter of the book is a constitution, and like I think there’s a lot of books looking at the Soviet Union and what it was doing was actually innovative forms of legislation and thinking of like – I was reading loads of constitutions, I found them really fascinating and I… my background was in conceptual art and that’s what I did my degree in. But then I thought like the law is like conceptual art, but real life.

Lani: Yeah so it made think – in the book it talks a lot about – it seems like it’s framed around this idea of identity politics, so the introvert versus the extrovert class kind of thing. And I wondered about how much of it is… because one of the critiques of movements and the way that – particularly a way that intersectionality’s been taken up is around like the erasure of the Black experience and also sort of adding – just adding lots of different like open quotes close quotes identities, so I wonder like if you thought about that at all when you were writing the book or not.

Hamja: Yeah at the moment I’m writing an essay which I’ve been meaning to write for half a year for media diversified, which I write for quite regularly and has been quite a hub for thinking about intersectionality questions, called ‘Should shy struggles be considered in intersectionality?’. The whole… I think the purpose of it isn’t additive though because like the constitution, like one of the lines that is a line from Lao Tzu which is I think the less you speak the more you can hear, but I think if you think the fundamental structure of politics is about listening and speaking, so I feel that it’s something more structurally at stake by positing that as the central… means. And I think this is also a more structural way of looking at western liberal democracy and who represents and who doesn’t. Like what type of personalities can be an MP, like not – you couldn’t be autistic introvert and run for parliament and be considered like… so you’re always in this position of being represented by someone but never being yourself as the representative. And I think structurally in terms of how we do everything, like a meeting is someone speaking at the front, there’s someone speaking at the podium – someone speaking at the podium sums up supposedly what people at the bottom think. So I think there’s actually a wider structural critique. I mean one of the chapters is called axis of resistance in the sensitive white man and it’s like a critique. Like it’s something – the sort of strong identification I had with figures like Van Gogh, like I watched a Van Gogh film with Rose, who’s the illustrator of shy radicals and also works for the Muslim creative collective board, who like – we do not look at Van Gogh in that film – Loving Vincent – as the oppressor, there’s something you just totally identify with. I don’t – so yeah at the level of comedy it is looking at this additive like – I was – I went to some of the occupations, I went to the Occupy University of Arts London, and all – a lot of these occupations have this big sign at the front, and you often see it at zine and anarchist bookfairs, saying we will not tolerate any oppression, no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no ableism – and I did sometimes feel like taking out a marker and writing at the bottom no extrovert supremacy as well. So the way comment functions of the book yeah is about the additive. There’s also this artist called Rudy Lowe and she did this series of Venn diagrams – did this amazing zine called Vent, and it’s a series of Venn diagrams and circles and on one of the circles she writes loud white men, and then it intersects with another circle saying opinions that matter. And it’s been made into a t-shirt and it’s become quite iconic and has been shared on social media. But I feel like that the first – the white and the men were seen as the two terms of privilege but the one at the top ‘loud’ wasn’t. So like if you gave them equality of… like what would happen then.
And I think yeah like the fundamental structure of politics is about listening and representing. And who’s worthy of being listened to, and who’s worthy of being a representative. And modes of listening and modes of speaking. Like you can speak at a podium and it’s only – you can only have this certain type of mass communication. And like the whole aspect – I think like we were talking about this earlier in our like our personal in-between conversation but like the act of face to face conversation is just something you can never let go of and it allows space for being a fallible person, it allows space for clumsiness. You know it’s like the whole mode of political communication is always about like eloquence and like getting it right the first time.
I’ve deviated slightly from your question. I actually – in terms of like… with the whole intersectionality debate though my wider perspective is that I think it loses sight of its own particularity, which I think it comes out of the US college campus experience. I think it’s very American and very much based on American histories, and American ways of defining race, and American ways of defining historical struggle. And I found it in clashes between black and brown narratives of race. Like you’d often have – something like partition of the Indian sub-continent into Hindu and Muslim, which is touched upon in the constitution, like that’s a major division of the earth. You know like South Asia is like one quarter of the world’s population, and it’s sort of like seen as this sort of very particular, very regional way of looking at history, rather than something universal. And I feel like the African-American – and I emphasise American – narrative of race is, I’m sure there’s this level of fatigue and fed up-ness, but it’s used as like a sort of metaphor for looking at all other forms of struggle. So Peter Tatchell who… has problems – used it as a way of looking at his own like gay rights struggle. Then using the figures –it’s also a type of… when people become icons and postage stamps and memorial days you forget the level of… I think you know like, just look at a figure like Martin Luther King, like firstly the aspect of critique around – or Rosa Parks – the critique around class and other things is sort of wiped out. But also the level of power rivalry that they had and the unevenness of things. So it becomes sort of like, I don’t know, I think idolisation. Yeah so that’s my – they’re loose speculative thoughts on intersectionality. I also think to what extent can people you know… like language will go through various levels of historical flux and to what extent can people keep re-owning. Like there’s this thing with the French and their language, and they’re always trying to define what is official French and what isn’t and I don’t know what… to what extent can – like for example if you take like tropes of race struggle, like the Dalits and the caste system use the Dalit Panthers. So they’ve used like a trope from like black struggle but like why – is that not – like is that invalid, is that like… And there’s more antagonistic debates around like political blackness and real blackness.
And I also think even blackness as a category is of itself not necessarily an ontological stable category. So you’ll have these student events called Are Somalis Black. And like when I used to work with NUS Black Students campaign for my brother’s campaign, there’d be like Nigerians sneering at Sudanese people or Somalis whether they’re really black. So I feel like they’re not necessarily stable as categories either. And I feel it like wipes away a lot of history so … the Haitian revolution is where political blackness is defined, as opposed to a biological concept of race. I – yeah there’s the idea as well like is biology something static and objective. I feel like it goes actually into more questions than it … yeah rather than providing – but that… they’re loose and speculative thoughts.

Lani: I wondered about erm.. in the book it talks a lot about like coalition politics and allies and solidarity and it also talks about like different takes on extrovert supremacy – some sort of more liberal kind of co-opting of the state type end of the movement, and then a more radical kind of overthrowing of the state and overthrowing of extrovert supremacy sort of idea. And I wondered if you want to comment on that more widely.

Hamja: Yeah the whole question of the reformist versus the revolutionary is comically put in the whole book. At one level it’s about.. I think there’s a – the reading you can have of it as a British Muslim and there’s a certain level of sort of understanding. So there is like a figure that you might recognised based on the Quilliam Foundation and like – as a British Muslim subject you’re always conscious of this sort of co-option. I think like… there’s a group called Tell MAMA, which is to basically monitor Muslim attacks, but has been so co-opted by the state and the Home Office and is often used as a way to advance things like Prevent. At another level it’s sort of – there exists a body of writing around introversion, it’s almost like a bit of a cottage industry. I mean there was a big Susan Cain talk and – and she’s written a best selling book Quiet – which she can – provide a sort of sub-market to herself . And there’s another book in England by someone called Joe Moran and he’s written a book called Shrinking Violets. He spoke with me at my launch and I’m speaking with him again in Liverpool at the writing on the wall festival. And I thought of Susan Cain as the Tony Blair of introverts. She says things like you have to fake it until you make it and she’s a corporate lawyer as well. And I thought of Joe Moran as some sort of Ed Miliband of shy people. And then I’m thinking so how can you take it that step further, like we’re talking about changing the structure of law and the structure of curriculum and the structure of the state. The comic way – the way the whole question is looked at is a re-reading of the iconic teen movie Heathers, which is Winona Ryder’s finest moment in my opinion – forget Stranger Things, watch Heathers. Forget Mean Girls as well, because like that is the sort of like… . And identifying strongly with her but – I also watched Heathers and I don’t know how many of the listeners have but I felt this level of disappointment the direction the film goes. And I learnt it wasn’t the original ending so like.. So Winona Ryder in Heathers that’s my ideal girlfriend and she develops a relationship with Christian Slater, who’s very much like the role he plays in Mr Robot actually. I feel like the role in Mr Robot is some sort of reprise. And reading the … I mean the way the film looks it looks like Christian Slater goes a bit more psycho in trying to kill all the popular girls. And the language used is about regimes and sheriffs and law and I feel quite proud of that – that rereading of.. So I talk about how Heathers is used as like a training tool and … but I think the whole language of teen movies is central to the film, and the politics of teen movies. And they’re still used in a very high level of global power like serious discussions. So I wrote the book before Trump became leader but people were talking about Trump as the corridor jock, or the jock-bully. And I think Ed Miliband lost the election and it was because he was a geek or a nerd. But I think like some people reclaim these terms like nerd and geeks of colour you’ll see, or nerds of colour, or blerd, which is like black nerd. And like I’m not for claiming them. I’m for like well if you claim them you’re still positing this inferior status in the social order, so how can we like reimagine a different order where they’re just not even terms of legitimisation or definition or recognition. Or how can you be the one defining who’s in or out.
In terms of my activism with my brother like I had to work with groups like Amnesty International and Liberty and I saw the way in which these centrist NGOs were quite slow to recognise prisoners like my brother. And who they didn’t recognise and who they didn’t bring on board. I worked with the Angola Three who I mentioned earlier. If you look at their early prison campaigns it’s all about prison abolition and looking at the continuation between the slavery plantation and prison labour. As soon as they get co-opted by Amnesty International it just becomes about human rights and their solitary confinement cell and that’s it, rather than these wider structural politics. So I became very conscious of that through working on my brother’s campaign. There were like various layers that I could appeal to. In some ways I had to work with – Liberty who came quite late to recognise my brother’s campaign like yeah there’s a sort of dilution there and then they have to maintain like a cross party consensus and they have to maintain their stakeholders. On the other hand they’re quite helpful so… I remember like when we went to the liberty awards, one of the people who shortlisted with me was the group Reprieve and they were like given an award for the work they’d done on the Guantanamo bay hunger strike. And I was thinking the other day – I was thinking when I was there, you know, why not – instead of just giving it to like the PR campaign or the legal representative of the hunger strike why can’t you just give an award straight to the hunger strikers themselves. And I feel like that’s actually the substance of – where who’s actually creating the struggle and leading it… I think when you also have this… like revolutionary politics is not necessarily about even creating these spaces but of looking at… So if you have revolutionary politics you’ll look at a legal case and you’ll think is that legal judgement, or was that law legitimate. And having the revolutionary politics you’ll recognise the illegitimacy of the court. I think through the war on terror, which I did a lot of campaigning for, there were – I’d mix with like white liberal groups, white leftist groups around Guantanamo bay, and they would just talk in terms of like habeas corpus and the Magna Carta and detention without trial. But for me it was a political recognition of failing to recognise a whole biography of Muslim men and what Bosnian genocide meant to them, their way of looking at the world, their way of looking at political disenfranchisement, their way of exploring identities which were beyond national identity. And a lot of the liberal leftist and NGO complex didn’t really look at that at all. They didn’t even look at, you know, why someone would go to a training camp, And so what that left was a gulf, was all these neo-con extremist groups like the Henry Jackson Society being the only ones who spoke about that. Though there are some – there’s a great erm Chinese-American scholar called [Darrell Lee] who does – you know part of our defence case was written by him. And also someone called Karen Armstrong, the former Catholic nun. And they speak about like Jihad and martyrdom and like how can we actually speak about these. So how can we think about concepts of self-defence and not leaving that area as a total blank. And that somehow becomes Shy Radicals.
[both laugh]

Lani: Cool. We’re coming to the end soon but I just wanted to – you’ve said some things but I just wanted to know what reactions have you had to the book so far and what’s your sort of hopes for the conversations following the book?

Hamja: Well every other day on Instagram, I get a really glowing and quite touching piece of fan mail from people from around the world. So I’ve got like – there’s a guy who wrote to me from North Texas saying he was a lecturer and he’d like to teach it to his students, and a lot of people just saying this is the way they’ve felt their whole life. Like everything that I actually wanted to achieve as a book, I was expecting a bit more backlash against some aspects of the book which are more provocative. But no I’ve just got quite overwhelming positivity. And from a really wide geographical perspective so I got an email from Australia, from Germany, from Holland. And I thought there were dimensions of the humour which just wouldn’t be – which were so localised to Britishness or British Muslims or… But no, it seems to speak to lots of people. I think people have their own reading. The best piece of fan interaction I got was a – there was a DJ at NTS radio called Leyla Pillai and she had written me quite a glowing piece of fan mail saying it said a lot of vital truths and articulated how she felt all her life. And then she made a radio show – she does a wonderful radio show on NTS called Who’s That Girl which is like a feminist history of avant garde music and rock history – and she made a radio show called PSI Girls, which is partly based on a re-reading of Shy Radicals as an almost feminist text. And she had – there’s an installation by artist Susan Hiller called PSI Girls and it takes clips from I think films like Carrie films, where you have these sort of young women who are like psychics who can disturb or have some telekinesis. And she’d use that as a concept of looking at disempowered shy people. And it was just a lovely… I was very touched by it, but it was a very fresh re-reading of the text, and I thought another way of like performing it. I mean the whole text is written – it’s not a novel, it’s not an essay, it’s a series of like… every chapter’s a different mode of writing. One’s like an oral history project, one’s a constitution, one’s an interview with political prisoners. But they’re forms of writing that I came across through political activism and also in terms of sort of state writing. Like the film festival and stuff. So I liked the next stage of it like… Me and Rose the illustrator are thinking of making a merchandise range a bit like the misfits but like the misfits theme club. But like yeah bringing it into the real world so it’s… I think you know there are spaces for like fictional identification like a lot of autistic people identify strongly with Star Trek and they find it quite empowering – the whole mode of identifying with sci fi and fantasy. But even though Shy Radicals is a made up book, I’d like people to identify with it in a way that they can identify things in their life. I like people to – I’d like the word extrovert supremacist to just travel outside the book to the extent that people might not even remember the origin. Nina Power who’s the editor of my book said once you had a word like harassment in the 60s and 70s for identifying another form of horrible behaviour. And having a vocabulary to identify ways you’d been demeaned and bullied and belittled and alienated is the first step towards recognising and building a better world beyond that.

Lani: Thanks.
Lani: I really hope you enjoyed this podcast, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If you have any thoughts on what topics we should be covering, or if there are any specific people we should be talking to please get in touch at

Thank you.


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